Pacific Overtures


It's impossible to make a dead duck fly. At least that was the conclusion arrived at by those recalling Hal Prince's original production of "Pacific Overtures" in 1976 -- entire investment lost -- and the English National Opera's 1987 unsatisfactory attempt to breathe live into a crippled bird of a show.

But there is no such word as impossible in the Donmar Warehouse's lexicon, especially when tackling Stephen Sondheim. The seldom revived "Merrily We Roll Along" and his successful "Company" were both winners here. And the high-profile house is even more confident when collaborating with the skillful Chicago Shakespeare Theater ensemble, which launched this reworking of Sondheim's most challenging piece in fall 2001.

The secret to getting the duck airborne is in the trimming of most of its feathers. Gary Griffin's svelte production features a cast of 10 men playing about 65 parts, plus a band with only four musicians. The show is performed without scenery and almost devoid of props on a rectangular pinewood platform smaller in area than a boxing ring.

Result: The duck takes off like a rocket.

Sondheim's story concerns how the Japanese were taught the techniques of expansionism and instilled with capitalist drive by nations anxious to exploit it. U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition started the erosion of 250 years of Japanese isolationism and the British, Dutch, Germans and French were quick to ride in on Uncle Sam's coattails.

The collapse of a culture took centuries, and condensed into 2 1/2 hours is open to accusations of superficiality. But such is the skill of Sondheim and the multiethnic, hugely accomplished cast -- dressed almost wholly in identical black costumes -- that Chicagoan Griffin's magical resuscitation provides a truly outstanding evening.

American Joseph Anthony Foronda is mesmerizing as the Reciter, who keeps the gargantuan plot moving along at a brisk pace, and British actor Teddy Kempner presents splendid, hilarious cameo performances as a Japanese brothel madam with a very Jewish line in patter.

Sondheim's salutes to Sousa, Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan when the Europeans arrive to muscle in on the action are highlights of a delightful score that is pared to perfection by a meticulous band perched on a secondary platform behind a playing area that has the audience on all sides.

Some additional bits and pieces at the end, including a clumsy reference to 9/11, are superfluous. The three lonely sailors imploring the Japanese "Pretty Lady" -- a beautiful song -- to sell her favors are so threatening that it's a wonder she doesn't run for the protection of the nearest samurai. But these are minor complaints. Without a doubt, the duck has turned into a swan.

  By Bill Hagerty
The Hollywood Reporter
July 07, 2003